The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, Ecopsychology, and the Crisis of Extinction: On Annihilating and Nurturing Other Beings, Relationships, and Ourselves


By Will W. Adams

Department of Psychology
Duquesne University

THE HUMANISTIC PSYCHOLOGIST, 34(2), 111–133, Copyright © 2006, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Correspondence should be addressed to Will W. Adams, Department of Psychology, Duquesne University, 544 College Hall, Pittsburgh, PA 15282. E-mail:

This study is an exploration of today’s mass extinction of species and mass extinction of relationships: When species become extinct and ecosystems are destroyed, distinctive interrelationships are extinguished. Humans and nature are mutually impoverished. This crisis of consciousness and culture involves our exclusive identification as (supposedly) separate egoic subjects, dissociation of humans and nature, and anthropocentrism. An emerging psychocultural therapy may help us transcend such narcissistic alienation and realize our nondual intimacy with the rest of nature. The primacy of interrelating is explored via Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological ontology and Buddhist psychology. Direct experiences with nature interact in mutually enhancing ways with interpersonal relationships and sociocultural structures/discourses that value nature. We may thereby cultivate mutual intimacy, health, and justice in our intersubjective relationships with the natural world.

In the spring of 1987, Dr. Jerome Jackson was searching a swampy forest inMississippifor a mysterious bird most experts thought extinct: the ivory-billed woodpecker (Jackson, 2004, p. 181; Tremblay, 2002). Museum specimens revealed it to be the third largest woodpecker in the world and the largest in North America, weighing 16–20 ounces, standing 18–20 in. tall, with an enormous wingspan of 30–31 in. (“Rediscovering,” 2005). Its deep black and white feathers, brilliant yellow eyes, intense red crest (on the male), and great ivory-colored bill are strikingly beautiful. Resembling the pileated woodpeckers that still live near many of us, but even bigger, the ivory-bill appears wondrously ancient in the few images existing from old paintings and photographs, vividly conjuring the evolutionary link with flying dinosaurs. So grand and awe-inspiring, it was commonly called the “Lord God Bird” because people would exclaim, “Lord God what a bird!” on encountering one. And as a precious being that evokes peoples’ spiritual sensibilities, it has also been deemed the “Holy Grail Bird.” But sadly, because nearly all its habitat had been destroyed and no authenticated sightings had occurred in theUnited Statessince 1944, ornithologists feared that the ivory-bill was extinct, another grievous loss among countless losses in the tragic, human-generated mass extinction of species currently taking place. Nonetheless, Jackson and his graduate student were hoping a remnant population might have survived. Their extensive search included systematically playing a 1935 recording of an ivory-bill’s call.

One morning, they played the tape and heard a reply in the distance: a nasal-sounding “kent, kent, kent” (suggesting a large nuthatch or a child’s tin trumpet), precisely as in the recording. They were thrilled that an ivory-bill might still be alive, might be nearby. As the tape played, the bird continued to respond, coming closer and closer. But then it stopped. Jackson and his student hurried toward the area of the sound, but never found its source. They never saw an ivory-bill, not that day nor in 2 years of devoted searching. This may have been an ivory-billed woodpecker responding to what it thought was a fellow member of its own species. Indeed, what if this had been the last surviving ivory-bill on earth? Imagine this bird, which naturally exists in close social groups, living alone for years and finally hearing the call of its kin, then drawn powerfully, primordially, to the source of the sound and being terribly stunned to find that it came from a group of humans. Can we develop some sense of what this experience might be? What if you were the last human being on earth? What if all your family and friends had died or been killed, and you were left alone? What if you had gone for years without any contact with your fellow human beings? What if your surrounding world had also been ravaged? And after nearly giving up hope, what if you heard another human voice calling out in the distance? Then, with body, heart, mind, and soul drawn to the call, you discover that the supposed human voice is coming from a parrot, imitating the call of your kin. You are still alone and will be until you die. And with your death, the whole human species dies, forever, never to exist again.

With over 30 of our kindred species being killed off every day (E. O. Wilson, 2001), something like this tragedy recurs hour after hour. It is heartbreaking to realize the magnitude of our ongoing violence against nature, against our natural interrelationships, and against ourselves. Indeed, we perpetuate our ecological crisis partly by repressing this reality that feels unbearable. Yet, it is with these very circumstances that we must begin. Offering a courageous challenge, the anthropologist Ruth Behar (1996) asserts that research “that doesn’t break your heart just isn’t worth doing anymore” (p. 177). In this spirit, this study explores humankind’s growing realization that we are involved in a mass extinction of species, and that the primary responsibility for this catastrophe lies with human psychology, culture, values, and lifestyles. And we focus on a corresponding crisis: the mass extinction of relationship and experience. That is, when entire species are driven extinct and ecosystems destroyed, distinctive interrelationships with those species and ecosystems also go extinct. The varieties of human experience with nature are diminished, as are the varieties of experiences within the nonhuman natural community (see Nabhan & St. Antoine, 1993; Pyle, 1992).We and nature are mutually impoverished.

We live in a culture ideologically and practically obsessed with dominating, controlling, and often annihilating the other-than-human natural world. Originally a key constituent in the modernist paradigm of reality, this project is being enacted with violent vengeance in our technologically powerful and economically driven postmodern world. The discipline of psychology has long been captivated by this misguided project (see Cushman, 1990; Kidner, 2001). (Kidner’s outstanding text, which I discovered too late to incorporate here, resonates deeply with this study.) The vast majority of modern psychology has been and continues to be uncritically anthropocentric. And it is not only natural scientific psychology with its ethos of experimental prediction and control that must be implicated here.

Sigmund Freud’s genius has meant so much to the tradition of psychology as a human (or interpretative) science. Nonetheless, as an heir of Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, and entranced by the industrialist zeitgeist of late modernity, Freud frequently demonized nature. Presuming that the “human community” needs to “defend” against “the dreaded external world,” Freud (1930/1961) advocated an “attack against nature and subjecting her to the human will” (p. 24). In the next sentence, with unreflective confidence in this drive to dominate (ostensibly feminine) nature, Freud asserted that “Then one is working with all for the good of all” (pp. 24–25). When we identify “all of us,” who we exclude and include with “us” is an act that carries profound implications. Likewise, too often and too uncritically, existential, humanistic, and transpersonal psychology have elevated humans over the rest of nature to the detriment of the natural world and humanity.

Fortunately, with the growth of transpersonal psychology, environmental psychology, and ecopsychology, the discipline has begun to reintegrate humans with nonhuman nature after centuries of alienation, dissociation, and antagonism (Roszak, Gomes,& Kanner, 1995). We are thus deepening our understanding of how it may be useful to differentiate humankind from the rest of nature without deeming ourselves separate from or above nature. Appreciating our kinship, identity, and intimacy with nonhuman nature along with our differences, we are beginning to realize that humankind is actually a manifestation of nature, one with quite distinctive ways of being. Faced with a crisis of catastrophic proportions, these are hopeful initiatives. Growing sensitivity to our ecological peril—which most deeply is a crisis of consciousness and culture—may call forth transformations in awareness and social practice, changes that foster healthy, just, and intimate relationships between humankind and the natural world.


You may have heard the news: At least one living ivory-billed woodpecker has been discovered in the swamps ofArkansas! Since first being sighted in February 2004 by an amateur birder, a team of expert ornithologists has verified at least seven encounters with this magnificent bird (Fitzpatrick et al., 2005; Gallagher, 2005; “Ivory-billed woodpecker,” 2005; “Rediscovering,” 2005). The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy are leading this exciting collaborative endeavor. First reported in April 2005, the ivory-bill’s survival has been greeted with joy and appreciation by the worldwide community.

At the very same time, ecologists warn that we are in the midst of a mass extinction of species. Although there have been other mass extinctions due to natural phenomena such as meteor strikes, the current crisis is unprecedented because it is being caused primarily by a single species (human beings) and culture (Western corporate–consumerist culture). According to E. O. Wilson (2001), Before humans existed, the species extinction rate was (very roughly) one species per million species per year (0.0001 percent). Estimates for current species extinction rates range from 100 to 10,000 times that, but most hover close to 1,000 times prehuman levels (0.1 percent per year), with the rate projected to rise, and very likely sharply. Regarding current biodiversity, “Scientists estimate that the total number of species on Earth could range from about 3.6 million up to 117.7 million, with 13 to 20 million being the most frequently cited range” (Harrison, Laverty, & Sterling, 2004). Bringing these numbers into a lived context, this means that at least 13,000 species are dying every year, 35 every day, more than one every hour. Who are we (and the world) losing while you are reading this article?

Today’s mass extinction is unprecedented in another significant way. Because it is being generated by human values and actions, it can be alleviated by a transformation of consciousness and culture/society. The ivory-billed woodpecker is barely eking out an existence on the edge of extinction. Yet with our assistance, it might flourish again. Thus, the ivory-bill teaches us that the massive annihilation of nature is not inevitable (as many have feared), that we are neither helpless nor hopeless, that we actually can create a healthier human–nature interrelationship, and that this transformation is vitally important but extremely tenuous at this moment. In these perilous times, when it is tempting to lose heart, the ivory-bill’s lessons are immensely important.

Note that some might contest the “anthropomorphism” in my imaginative reversal of Dr. Jackson’s ivory-bill search. There are dangers indeed. To presume that we completely understand another animal, based exclusively our personal perspective, is narcissistic, imperialistic, and often destructive. It is crucial to appreciate the real otherness and difference of nonhuman presences: animals, plants, air, water, land, ecosystems, nature—“all our relations” in the sensitive phrase of the Lakota Sioux. Yet, it is equally narcissistic to (conceptually, illusorily) separate ourselves from the rest of nature and thereby presume our experience is totally different from that of nonhuman beings. We are natural beings, after all, while simultaneously existing as thoroughly cultural beings. Research and personal experience should deepen our appreciation of our similarities with nature—even our transpersonal/transegoic identity with or as nature—along with our distinctive differences (seeDavis, 1998). And most important, they should help us foster wakeful, intimate, vivifying, compassionate, and wise interrelationships with the natural world.

Perhaps you were touched by the brief story of the ivory-bill woodpecker’s demise, Jackson’s tantalizing search, and the heartening news of its rediscovery. (“Rediscovered,” we should note, from a human perspective because we assume the ivory-bills were, in their own way, well aware of their struggle to survive). Even vicariously, experiences with the ivory-bill may resonate deeply. Indeed, I have heard many people (in my local community and in media reports) characterize their response as a kind of spiritual experience, one filled with profound emotion and significance. Such vividly felt experiential relationships, whose significance continues to resound in our lives, are vastly different from mere abstract conceptions about ecological peril or the wonders of nature. These days, most people have a basic cognitive conception of the extinction of species. When asked, they can give a dictionary-like definition of the term extinction. Even further, many would say they know species are going extinct largely due to human lifestyles, and many would express concern. Yet, it seems that we keep ourselves from really understanding and being affected by this phenomenon, from fully realizing that we are annihilating entire lineages of beings, killing them off totally and forever. We know about extinction, but we do not know in a way that really matters or makes a difference. We have the abstract idea of extinction, but miss the meaningful lived experience: embodied, heartfelt, deeply thought, and significant.

We miss the meaning partly because we lack direct contact with nature. Meaning depends on context, and our estrangement from nature has left us with little experiential context within which we can make sense of the abundant information about extinction (and other ecological maladies). The information rarely fosters transformation because it remains unintegrated. Meaning also depends on the perspective we adopt, and with our culture’s devaluation of nature and overvaluation of economic “progress” (narrowly defined), the death of species may appear insignificant. There are also psychodynamic reasons that such perilous evidence remains split off—namely, that it feels unbearable to acknowledge the reality of nature’s suffering and our responsibility for it. This dissociation of mind and body, this desensitized knowing with our heads but without our hearts, is itself a symptom of our larger alienation from nature—here, an alienation from nature in and as our incarnate sensuous self. These cultural and psychodynamic dissociations reinforce one another. Instead, we must cultivate the capacity to embrace the whole range of our experience, from our appreciation of the breathtaking beauty, wonder, power, danger, and mystery of nature to our grief, sadness, fear, despair, and anger over its annihilation. At best, this article will sponsor further experiences with the natural world, and whatever you glean from reading will resound as you return to the woods and to engaged participation in your local community and bioregion.

At least one ivory-billed woodpecker has been found in the last 18 months. We presume that this particular bird is still alive. And we hope others are surviving, breeding, and carrying on a coexistence with their ecosystemic community as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. Yet, we are far from being assured of this species’ well-being, much less that of earth’s collective ecosphere. In fact, just 7 days after the ivory-bill’s continued survival was announced, the administration of President George W. Bush enacted a regulatory change that permits more roads, logging, and mining in national forests (Barringer, 2005). These are the very practices that nearly exterminated the ivory-bill in the first place and that have destroyed countless other beings, species, and ecosystems. These two announcements typify the current contest between divergent social constructions of the human–nature relationship. This is not to say that nature is socially constructed, but that our relationship with the rest of nature is influenced powerfully by the cultural values and social practices that predominate within a particular place and historical era. Contemporary Western culture, preferring domination to diversity, is annihilating the natural world. Yet, cultures are not univocal. Branches of this very culture also created the Endangered Species Act, Earth Day, and radical ecology. And every day, babies are born who are being nurtured by ecologically aware parents and subcultures. We thus have a precious opportunity to construct alternative cultures that care for nature and foster intimacy with the animate earth.


A friend recently expressed dismay that millions of dollars are being spent to preserve the ivory-bill’s habitat. He asked sincerely, “What about all the human needs that could be addressed instead?” Given the immense human suffering throughout the world, this is a question that many concerned citizens ask when ecological issues are raised. Contrary to the central insight of ecopsychology, however, such questions presume that the well-being of the natural world and of humankind are separate from one another. They also presume that ecological, psychological, spiritual, and cultural dimensions of existence are unrelated. These presumptions are quite normal today in Western culture. Normality is not necessarily healthy, however, especially in a world pervaded by ecological annihilation, social injustice, and personal distress. Indeed, as David Loy (personal communication, November 23, 2005) put it powerfully, “The real issue is not whether millions are being spent to preserve [the ivory-bills’] habitat, but that billions are being spent to destroy such habitats.” In fact, “successful adaptation” to such conventions may represent pathology rather than well-being and may be life depleting rather than life enhancing. In this light, the taken-for-granted presumptions mentioned previously can be seen for what they are: symptomatic evidence of our (pathological and pathogenic) alienation from the rest of nature. Such ideological and experiential symptoms need to be addressed from a critical and psychoculturally therapeutic perspective.

Along these lines, in a previous work I explored how the following phenomena are keys to a complex crisis in contemporary life: (a) our exclusive identification as (supposedly) separate, autonomous, individualistic, skin-bounded, egoic subjects; (b) the presumed, dualistic separation (or dissociation) of self and world, humans and nature; and (c) exclusively anthropocentric ideology, values, and practices (Adams, 2005). These interrelated phenomena reveal that we are terribly confused about who we are, what the natural world is, and what really matters. Such ontological confusion is the shadow side of the great emancipatory achievements of modernity. This alienation, the result of a long cultural–historical process, is now taken as “natural,” inevitable, just “the way things are and have to be.” Captivated by these views, values, and ways of being, we exist in a state of impoverishment. Living merely from a habitual egoic identity, self-sense, and way of being, we ignore, dismiss, or pathologize healthy prepersonal and transpersonal/transegoic dimensions of our being. And, correspondingly, we become ignorant of nature in its wholeness and sentience, viewing it only instrumentally as raw material to be exploited for human satisfaction. We thus reduce ourselves and nature together. Having egoically dissociated ourselves from our inherent communion with the natural world, and from nonegoic modes of being, we are partial persons relating with a partial world: exclusively egoic subjects with nature as mere commodity. This is a description of pathology and a prescription for pathogenesis. Such pathology in the psychological, sociocultural, and spiritual realms generates pathology in the ecological realm (diminished biodiversity, habitat destruction, environmental toxicity, global warming, etc.), and this ecopathology generates further individual and sociocultural pathology. As ecologist Robert Michael Pyle (2005) states, “The most dangerous idea in the world is that humans are separate from the rest of nature. The greatest enormities against the Earth stem from such delusions, just as us-and-them thinking justifies our inhumanity toward one another” (p. 69).

To relate more wisely and compassionately with the natural world, we need a psychocultural therapy that helps us transcend our narrow egoic identity and anthropocentrism and vividly realize our nondual intimacy with the rest of nature. Herein, as Andy Fisher (2002) says, we “recognize the natural world as a community of fellow subjects rather than a collection of meaningless objects to be humanly exploited” (p. 52). And we thereby cultivate mutual well-being in our intersubjective relationships with the presences of nature. These are the great aspirations of ecopsychology.


Although generally ignored by the economic, political, military, and technological powers dominating contemporary culture—and by (all of us) ordinary citizens who are being semi-knowingly indoctrinated by the ideology of these powers—it is increasingly clear that our ecological catastrophe is interwoven with a profound crisis of human culture and consciousness. Nature–Psyche–Culture–Spirit: Inherently nondual, these thoroughly inter-permeate one another in our current crisis and its emerging therapeutic transformation. (Whenever I speak of this grave crisis, ecological, psychological, sociocultural, and spiritual dimensions are all implied together.) Therefore, constructing healthy and just human–nature relationships requires a radical questioning of many taken-for-granted presumptions regarding basic aspects of existence. Ontological, epistemological, and ethical questions thus crucially arise. For example, we may ask, “What is it to be a human being?,” “What is nature?,” and “What is the human–nature interrelationship right now in our culture?” And we allow these questions to guide our quest for the mutual well-being of humans and nature.

Engaging in such rigorous inquiry—and developing transformative practices in response—is the guiding commitment of “radical ecology,” an interdisciplinary collaboration that includes ecopsychology, ecofeminism, deep ecology, and social ecology (Zimmerman, 1994). This much-needed approach can be coupled with the valuable efforts of so-called reform environmentalism, efforts designed primarily to reduce environmental threats to human health and to use nature wisely—not just nominally, but truly wisely and compassionately—for human benefit. Although appreciating the urgent need for more radical transformation, I also believe that the ecological movement needs to foster cooperative alliances wherever possible (rather than conjuring us-vs.-them divisiveness). Immense intelligence and power are available, and we certainly need all the help we can muster. In the spirit of radical ecology and endeavoring to cultivate transformation that grows from an appreciation of the roots of our crisis, let us consider the existential primacy of interrelationship and its relevance in our current ecopsychological peril. We are annihilating our health-enhancing relationships with nature through extinction and our lack of direct experiential contact. What do such losses mean for us and for the natural world?

Humans are relational beings. We become who we are—we are who we are— by participating in intersubjective relationships with others. Our sense of meaning, value, purpose, and vitality emerges in and through our relationships. The centrality of relationship is one of the key findings of contemporary psychology and one of the crucial orienting principles of psychotherapy. Significantly, many disciplines join with psychology in stressing the significance of our relational nature. The following are just a few of the various traditions in general agreement here: object relations, intersubjective, and relational theories in psychoanalysis; feminist psychology and self-in-relation theory; social constructionism; systems theory; Buddhist psychology and philosophy; and phenomenological psychology and philosophy. Similarly, the discipline of ecology demonstrates that the natural world is inherently relational. In these diverse traditions, we discover a remarkably consistent focus on the primacy of interrelationship. “All real living is meeting,” as Martin Buber (1923/1958, p. 11) declares.

To fully explicate the relational nature of being, of being human ,and of the natural world—and to explore its ecopsychological significance—requires a study in its own right. Yet, given our rapidly vanishing relationships with species and ecosystems and the vanishing relationships within the nonhuman natural world, an appreciation of inter-relationality is crucially important for ecopsychology. Thus, very briefly, I address the primacy of interrelationship by invoking Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological philosophy together with Buddhist psychology.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s (1945/1962) Phenomenology of Perception is an exquisite articulation of the epistemological thesis of the primacy of perception. Interpreted in light of our exploration, this text simultaneously reveals the primacy of interrelationship. “Man is but a network of relationships, and these alone matter to him” (Saint-Exupery, as quoted in Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962, p. 456). Merleau- Ponty chose to celebrate this insight (from Antoine de Saint-Exupery) by presenting it as the final culminating sentence of his great text. For Merleau-Ponty, perceiving is an embodied, participatory, reciprocal relationship between oneself and the world, between self and nature. As David Abram (1996) says, “Perception, in Merleau-Ponty’s work, is precisely this reciprocity, the ongoing interchange between my body and the entities that surround it” (p. 52). Anticipating contemporary ecopsychology, Merleau-Ponty beautifully affirms our inseparable, nondual, erotic, conversational intimacy with the natural world:

the whole of nature is…our interlocutor in a sort of dialogue.…The thing is inseparable from a person perceiving it, and can never be actually in itself because its articulations are those of our very existence…To this extent, every perception is a communication or a communion … a coition, so to speak, of our body with things.  (Merleau-Ponty, 1945/1962, p. 320, italics in original)

Similarly affirming the primacy of interrelationship, the contemporary Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (1988) discloses that self and world, self and nature “inter-are” (p. 3): “‘To be’ is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing” (p. 4). Indeed, Buddhist (and other) contemplative practices reveal the experience of no-self (anatta): No separate self can ever be found, nor even any separate thing, because all “things” (including our distinctive self or subjectivity) co-arise dependently with all other things and subjectivities (paticca-samuppada).

In fact, regarding the human–nature relationship, to presume (as we conventionally do) a dualistic separation of self and nature is dangerously misleading, a confused and confusing abstraction from our integrated lived experience. When we attend carefully to our direct experience with nature (via meditative awareness, phenomenological research, or sensitive attunement to ordinary perception), we discover that what our “self” is and what “nature” is (in this context) is their inseparable relational intertwining, interpermeating, interdependent coarising and coconditioning (Adams, 1996, 1999; Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968). From this perspective, Merleau-Ponty encourages us to appreciate “nature as the other side of man” (p. 274).

Going even further in The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty (1964/1968) explores the ontological primacy of experiential interrelating. With his nondual philosophy of flesh/the intertwining/the chiasm, he shows that “I am a field of experience” (Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, p. 110), that “we are experiences” (p. 115). In other words, I am a field of interrelationships. We are interrelationships. In this astonishing text, Merleau-Ponty demonstrates that ordinary perceptual relatedness always involves a “strange adhesion” of seer and visible, toucher and tangible, (so-called) self and world and self and nature, an inherent interrelationship wherein “through their commerce … each is only the rejoinder of the other, and which therefore form a couple, a couple more real than either of them” (p. 139, emphasis added).


Because these relational couplings and interchanges between self and nature (and, beyond humankind, between all the various beings and presences within the natural world) are what is most real—are who we are, are what nature is—and because we are losing these relationships as we annihilate species and ecosystems, then we are losing our very self, losing nature’s very being, and creating a void in lived reality. R. D. Laing (1967) remarks that “Experience used to be called the soul” (p. 12), proposing (like Merleau-Ponty) that relational experience is our primary reality. Pursuing the implications of this insight, Laing asserts that “If our experience is destroyed, our behavior will be destructive. If our experience is destroyed, we have lost our own selves” (p. 12, italics in original). Our ecologically destructive behavior is a violent symptom of a previous (and ongoing) psychocultural destruction of our whole selves. And, correspondingly, our wholeness is destroyed further with further destruction of the natural world.

In suggesting that extinction (of species and relationships) creates a void in lived reality, I am speaking from a phenomenological perspective that emerges from and remains grounded in everyday experience. With extinction, some dimension of us dies with the other species’ death, just as some dimension of the integrated life-world dies. (Although the analogy is inexact, sense the similarity with losing a loved one to death.) The distinctive interrelationships we shared are gone, never to exist again. Neither we nor the world will ever be the same. Concerned with these very issues, Gary Snyder (1990), truly one of our wise elders, warns that Human beings themselves are at risk—not just on some survival-of-civilization level but more basically on the level of heart and soul. We are in danger of losing our souls. We are ignorant of our own nature and confused about what it means to be a human being. (pp. 177–178) Along similar lines, Abram (1996) eloquently emphasizes that “we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human” (p. ix). As our relationships with nature become extinct and convivial contact disappears, we actually become less human.

These wise witnesses are offering dreadfully consistent testimony about our diminishing relationship with nature. In losing relationship/experience, we are in danger of losing “our own selves” or our “soul” (Laing), “losing our soul” (Snyder), becoming less fully “human” (Abram). And, following Merleau-Ponty, lived reality is impoverished. It is no accident, then, that psychotherapists are seeing more and more patients whose distress centers around these same concerns. In Freud’s era, it was common for patients to present with specific symptoms such as strange obsessions or hysterical conversions based on repressed experience. Today, in contrast, our patients (and countless others) tend to be haunted by a vague, overall sense that there is a basic lack in their very being or existence; that something important is missing; that they are not real in some important way; that they are disconnected, alienated, and empty; that their lives are neither meaningful nor authentic (Loy, 1996, 2003; Mitchell, 1993). Although few of our suffering brothers and sisters know the philosophical jargon, these symptoms are manifestations of profound epistemological confusion and ontological insecurity so prevalent in contemporary culture. (Laing, 1959, coined the latter phrase to describe a lack of basic security regarding one’s being, typical in schizophrenic existence. Yet, as Laing showed, so many of us are similarly anguished as we struggle to be “well-adjusted” within sociocultural norms that are themselves often pathological.)

The relational psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell observes that we frequently encounter people “who may be very well adapted to their society, but who are missing something fundamental in their experience of living.…these are patients whose subjectivity itself is understood to be basically awry” (p. 22). Patient and therapist (and indeed each of us) do well to ask How does life come to feel real? significant? valuable? What are the processes through which one develops a sense of self as vital and authentic? How are these processes derailed, resulting in a sense of self as depleted, false, shallow?(Mitchell, 1993, p. 24) Mitchell responds that real, authentic, valuable, vital existence emerges in and through interrelationship. Along with most of modern psychology, Mitchell focuses on relationships between the patient and other people.

Ecopsychology agrees that these are vitally important, yet goes further to encourage a more expansive relatedness that includes our interrelationships with the other-than-human natural world. We have coevolved with the rest of nature for hundreds of thousands of years. Nature is one dimension of our very being and (transpersonal) subjectivity (“Nature as the other side of man,” Merleau-Ponty, 1964/1968, p. 274). Nature is a profoundly significant, intersubjective presence in all of our lives (whether we realize it or not). Yet we live in a culture bent on dominating and controlling nature. And nature and our relationships with it are being annihilated. How then could we not feel that we are lacking, unreal, disconnected, deadened, empty? Such lack makes us vulnerable to false solutions provided (for a monetary and psychospiritual price) by our corporate–consumerist culture, especially the disingenuous promise of acquiring things. But such “solutions” never come close to touching our real needs while actually intensifying our sense of lack and further destroying the natural world. As we increasingly annihilate nature, we feel increasingly empty, but compulsively attempt to fill our emptiness by consuming (ultimately unsatisfying) commodities that require further annihilation of nature for their production. I am not suggesting that our ecological alienation is responsible for all such malaise. Indeed, in a series of profound works deeply consonant with our concerns, David Loy (1996, 2003) articulates a fundamental sense of lack that arises from the intrinsic absence of a separate self. In misunderstanding its nature, we intensify this sense of lack by exclusively (mis)identifying ourselves with an illusory structure: our supposedly separate and autonomous ego. This leaves us haunted by “the quite valid suspicion that ‘I’ [as ego] am not real” (Loy, 1996, p. xi). Given the extent of social oppression and injustice, intercultural conflict, interpersonal trauma, and existential pain in our lives, any single interpretation is much too simplistic. Yet, clearly, healing our dissociation from nature must be one constituent of a larger psychocultural therapeutic.

Of importance, let me emphasize that a merely anthropocentric perspective is much too narrow. This crisis of extinction—the extinction of experiential relationships and of species—is not only one in which human relationships with nature are vanishing and human existence degraded, but, equally tragically, one in which the interrelationships within nature itself are being extinguished. So many species are dying and so many local ecosystems are being extirpated, and with them are dying immensely diverse, subtle, and complex interrelationships. Ecology, as the science of interdependent natural relationships, teaches us that nature is this deep, vast, interdependently co-arising community of relationships. With extinction or extirpation, as relationships disappear, the ecosystem (and larger ecosphere) becomes impoverished, and relational interchanges between animals, plants, water, air, and land become diminished and unbalanced. For example, following the extirpation of large predators such as wolves and mountain lions, deer populations are growing excessively across the country while their food-sources such as acorns and oak saplings are being depleted. Key participatory interactions are now missing. No howl can be heard. Deer and rabbits need not be alert in the same way, and thus their consciousness and behavior are changing. Fewer trees grow to maturity. When species die and relationships within the ecosystem are lost, the ecosystem not only changes, but its very being is diminished. While our relationships with nature vanish in the process, it is equally important to recognize, mourn, and reverse the annihilation of interrelationships within the nonhuman natural world.


The primacy of interrelationships is crucial from an ecopsychological perspective. As psychotherapists and ordinary citizens know, our relationships can foster health or pathology, for our self and for others. Although obvious, it cannot be overemphasized that our well-being is interwoven with the well-being of our family, friends, and community/culture/society. Although it should be equally obvious, we are just beginning to realize that the same is true of our intersubjective relationships with the natural world. Just as a mutually enhancing relationship between people depends on ongoing experiential contact and renegotiation of the relationship based on such experience, so also in our relationships with the rest of nature.

In contrast, a vicious circle is being perpetuated by our egoic/dissociative/anthropocentric annihilation of the natural world and the resulting extinction of relational encounters: Our impoverished self and ways of being and relating create an impoverishment of nature, and impoverished nature leads to further impoverishment of our self, being, and relating. To put it simply: Extinction of intimate relationships with nature contributes to extinction of species and ecosystems, and extinction of species and ecosystems creates further extinction of natural interrelationships. And it is not only specific relationships but ecologically sensitive ways of relating that are being lost (or never developed in the first place). E. O. Wilson (1992) stresses that “Biological diversity…is the key to the maintenance of the world as we know it.…This is the assembly of life that took a billion years to evolve. It…created the world that created us. It holds the world steady. (p. 15)”

This is not an (impossible) wish for a never-changing world. Rather, it is an understanding of the way that biodiversity fosters well-being (just as cultural, racial, gender, ethnic, spiritual, and other such diversity fosters well-being). Significantly, the natural world seems to promote biodiversity. As Aldo Leopold (1949) says, “the trend of evolution is to elaborate and diversify the biota” (p. 216). Ecologists emphasize that biodiversity is necessary for ecosystems to be healthy, and they are gravely concerned about the depletion of the biological gene pool due to the mass extinction of the earth’s species. Likewise, in losing so many of our interrelationships with nature, we are depleting the psychological/relational “gene pool.” Biodiversity and experiential/relational diversity are reciprocally enhancing. With the restoration of biodiversity, ecosystems (from wild ones to those in our largest cities) are nurtured, thereby offering more diverse and accessible experiential opportunities. And as we restore relational diversity, opening ourselves for engaged participatory conversations with nonhuman nature, we deepen our provisional understanding of nature, relate more sensitively, and work to foster greater biodiversity.


Some would argue that experiences, relationships, selves, ecosystems, and worlds are not lost due to extinction, but merely that they change. Nature does continue on in some way regardless of human actions. From an existential phenomenological perspective, however—from the perspective of our lived interrelatedness in daily life—humans and nature go on, but certainly in an impoverished way. Think of the vast difference between encountering the multiplicity of plants, animals, and land in a healthy forest as compared with the monoculture lawns so pervasive today. How many of us have walked through a forest with an elder whose intimate knowledge of local plants opens up an astonishing diversity of edible foods? How many of us have experienced the pleasure of quenching our thirst with a luscious wild plum, much less enjoyed a meal of thrice-boiled milkweed buds? (They are delicious, by the way, tasting like asparagus/artichoke!) As our existence is dominated (often unconsciously) by techno-corporate monoculture fashioned for human convenience and profit; as our lives are structured by things such as chemically controlled lawns, white bread, McDonald’s, and Wal-Mart; and thus as the diversity of our relationships die, then we and the world are diminished together. With more and more of the natural world being replaced by structures built for human beings, we increasingly relate like Narcissus only to our own reflection, to our own kind, to ever more of the same. When we lose the vivid and vivifying intensity of encountering nature as a truly different other—remember seeing that hawk soar overhead or that bear cross the road?—we begin to subsist in a self-enclosed world, relating only to ourselves. This is an extremely narcissistic relationship, terribly narrow and narrowing. Just as a narcissist treats others as an objectified extension of his or her own self—ignoring the real otherness of the other—and uses them instrumentally to fulfill his or her own wishes, today’s dominant culture often converts nature into an extension of humanity—ignoring the authentic being of nature—and uses nature merely to fulfill human wishes. In place of multidimensional human–nature relationships, we increasingly have one-dimensional human–human relationships. In the name of (a narrow type of) “progress” or “economic development,” shopping malls replace forest ecosystems, mountain range removal (coal strip mine) craters replace mountains and rivers ecosystems. Rather than mutually enhancing I–Thou dialogues with nature, we are creating mutually impoverishing monologues with ourselves.


We were so close to losing (and may still lose) our uniquely awe-inspiring relationship with the ivory-billed woodpecker. The “Lord God Bird” is still gracing our world, but this breathtaking experience is hanging in the balance. We almost extinguished the bald eagle, humpback whale,Florida panther, and countless others known and unknown. Long ago, we hunted the wooly mammoth to extinction. And not so long ago, we killed off theCarolinaparakeet. This was North America’s only native parrot, a beautiful bird with intimate social relationships. Alexander Wilson (1853), one of America’s first ornithologists, writes appreciatively that these birds “are extremely sociable, and fond of each other, often scratching each other’s heads and necks, and always, at night, nestling as close as possible to each other” (p. 249). Nonetheless, captivated by the traditional scientific ideal of detached (or here dissociated) “objectivity,” he uncritically recounts an event that sounds dreadful to our ears:

When they alighted on the ground, it appeared at a distance as if covered with a carpet of the richest green, orange, and yellow: they afterwards settled, in one body, on a neighboring tree…Here I had an opportunity of observing some very peculiar traits of their character: Having shot down a number, some of which were only wounded, the whole flock swept repeatedly around their prostrate companions…At each successive discharge, though showers of them fell, yet the affection of the survivors seemed rather to increase; for, after a few circuits around the place, they again alighted near me, looking down on their slaughtered companions with such manifest symptoms of sympathy and concern, as entirely disarmed me. (p. 248)

Regrettably,Wilsonmust have been “disarmed” only rhetorically. Countless incidents like this, with farmers killing parakeets as “pests” and hunters killing them for “sport,” are what drove this glorious bird to extinction. Rather than leave extinction as just an abstract concept, I offer stories of theCarolinaparakeet and ivory-bill woodpecker to cultivate a deeply felt experience and conversation. Furthermore, such individual experiences with nature must be complemented by collective sociocultural structures/discourses and interpersonal relationships that value, validate, and nurture greater intimacy with the earth.

Sharing stories with each other may create such support, whether this exchange occurs across a campfire or café table, in living rooms or classrooms, in therapy offices or corporate offices, in art and literature, or in scholarly papers. Mary Oliver (2005) expresses the same urgent hope in her poem “Lead”:

Here is a story to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one, of nothing we could see.
A friend told me of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one just where that is.
The next morning this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this to break your heart,
by which I mean only that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
(p. 54, from New and Selected Poems, Volume Two by Mary Oliver. Copyright © 2005 by Mary Oliver. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.)

To feel that our hearts are breaking as we witness the annihilation of nature is actually a manifestation of a health and sanity. It is a sign that our hearts are working just as they should, that we are alive, open, caring, and willing to respond to the suffering of the world and to the confusion, ignorance, and injustice that are creating such horrors. And it is evidence that we were only illusorily but never really separated from the natural world in the first place. (And truly, it is not our hearts that are breaking, but the excessive defensiveness by which we keep ourselves overprotected.) When we are openly attentive to nature, we discover immense beauty and pain, and each (in its own way) calls for a loving response. Writing in the same spirit years ago (yet more timely today), Joanna Macy (1991) offered this urgent invocation of loss, grief, and hope:

“InGeneva, the international tally of endangered species, kept up to day in looseleaf volumes, is becoming too heavy to lift…. What funerals or farewells are appropriate?
reed warbler
swallow-tail butterfly
Manx shearwater
Indian python
howler monkey
sperm whale
blue whale …
In the time when his world, like ours, was ending, Noah had a list of the animals, too. We picture him standing by the gangplank, calling their names, checking them off on his scroll. Now we are also checking them off.
ivory-billed woodpecker
brown pelican
FloridaManatee …
We reenact Noah’s ancient drama, but in reverse, like a film running backwards, the animals exiting.
Your tracks are growing fainter. Wait. Wait. This is a hard time. Don’t leave us alone in a world we have wrecked.” (pp. 74–77)

These are hard times, dark times, dangerous times indeed. This is far from the whole story, however. Crises can call forth the worst of ourselves, but also the best—regressive avoidance and violence or awareness, wisdom, compassion, and social engagement. Heeding the lessons of psychotherapy, ecopsychologists may be heartened to remember that breakdown is often a prelude to breakthrough. Macy rightly realized the plight of the ivory-billed woodpecker, and yet this bird now signifies hope. In opening our bodies, hearts, minds, souls, in letting extinction touch us deeply, death may give rise to love and compassion. Authentic love of nature is no sentimental feeling, wishful fantasy, or abstract ideal. It involves conscious dialogical action in response to specific manifestations of the earth’s wondrous beauty and rampant annihilation.

Love and death—extinction does evoke both—are perhaps the most life-altering experiences of all, the most likely to foster real awakening and existential transformation. This was certainly the case with Aldo Leopold, whose realizations were too deep to be appreciated in his (and our?) time. Leopold confessed that, in their youth, he and his companions never even considered bypassing a chance to kill a wolf. One day, therefore, on seeing a mother wolf playing with her pups, they unthinkingly barraged the pack with gunfire. As he tells the story,

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” (Leopold, 1949, pp. 129–130)

Leopold was once a conventional forester and hunter with a typically anthropocentric identity and ethos. Yet, his encounter with this wolf initiated a psychospiritual conversion. Although contrary to the dominant ideology of his (and our) era, Leopold allowed this experience to resonate so deeply as to change his life. Thus, he says,

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.…In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from a conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” (Leopold, 1949, p. 204)

Seeing the wolf die took him directly to the point:

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (pp. 224–225). Thus, according to Leopold, our ecological crisis requires that we learn “to think like a mountain” (p. 132) and thus be guided by an “ecological conscience” (p. 207).

This story is well known yet worth careful (re)consideration. Leopold (1949) clearly attests to the potentially transformative importance of direct experiential relationships with nature. (Note Leopold’s startling comment that “the mountain” did not agree with his anthropocentric views and actions. I want to support this realization that nature is sentient and intelligent and that we can cultivate an intersubjective relationship with the natural world. Yet, I must defer an exploration of this phenomenon for a future study.) Leopold emerged from his experience with a radically nondualistic, nonanthropocentric, transegoic/ecocentric sense of self, worldview, and ethos. His transformative encounter shows the potential for direct experience to help us overcome the three maladies so characteristic of modern and postmodern society: dissociation, egoism, and anthropocentrism. Moving beyond our dissociative and delusional separation from nature, Leopold urges us to participate intimately as a “plain member and citizen” of the natural “community.” Transcending our excusive identification as supposedly separate egoic subjects (and thus further healing our illusory split from nature), Leopold opens the transpersonal and transrational possibility of “thinking like a mountain.” And surpassing our narrowly anthropocentric/narcissistic ways of being, Leopold’s ecocentric land ethic expands our sphere of care and engaged action.

Although many of us are severely out of touch with nature, it is not necessary to have such an extreme encounter. Although some places are wilder than others, nature is omnipresent. We simply have to begin wherever we are and to be aware of what is happening around us. When German visitors excitedly directed my attention to “that amazing bird!” in a neighbor’s yard, I was initially disappointed to tell them that “it’s just a cardinal.” But their thrill resounded just enough to awaken me from a habitual entrancement. Getting me in touch for a fresh look, my friends helped me realize once again what beautiful beings cardinals are and what a glorious being that particular cardinal was. Yes, what an amazing bird! And there are equally amazing natural phenomena in all our local neighborhoods and bioregions.

As we near the end of this study, many important questions call for further exploration. Do our relational experiences with nature actually have ontological, epistemological, and ethical implications? What does it mean to relate with nature as a real other, an authentic, conscious subject? And given that our experience is influenced unconsciously by the reigning ideology and social structures of our era—especially those of corporate capitalism, technology worship, and consumerist culture—is it even possible to break free and foster new relationships with the natural world?

It is crucial to give ourselves opportunities for direct experiences with nature and to revise our views and responses to nature accordingly. For such experiences to make a real difference, however, they need to be taken up, reflected on, and integrated into our daily existence and our very being. Yet, without networks of inter-personal relationships and cultural/societal/community structures and discourses offering support for intimate engagement with nature, it is difficult to participate in such encounters in the first place, and even harder to incorporate them into our everyday life. There is no easy way to bring about such vital personal, interpersonal, and collective changes. But it is clear that a reciprocally enhancing, dialectical association exists between personal experience and interpersonal and sociocultural structures that value nature.

For example, several years ago when I was teaching at a small liberal arts college in the mountains ofWest Virginia, I introduced my students to the plight of the ivory-bill woodpecker during an ecopsychology section of a course on “The Humanistic Tradition in Psychology.” In this form, for the first time in its history, the college was providing collective support for ecopsychology. I shared the story ofJackson’s ivory-bill search, and my students were interested, but not nearly as impressed as I had hoped. A couple of years later, I offered a whole course on “Psychology and Nature.” This course became one constituent of an interdisciplinary “Green Studies” minor that my colleagues and I created, the college supported, and the students loved. Now, given an entire semester to develop ecopsychological insights, I brought pictures of pileated woodpeckers to our first class meeting and encouraged the students to be alert for this fascinating bird. Knowing a pair was nesting on our wooded campus, I hoped that direct experiences with these woodpeckers would provide contextual ground for our eventual inquiry into the ivory-bill and mass extinction. Soon, student after student came to class excitedly reporting their sightings. When we eventually discussed the ivory-bill, students were much more engaged than in the previous course. Their encounters with the pileateds seemed to foster a vividly heartfelt connection to the ivory-bill and its demise. This was one of many experiential activities that complemented (and was complemented by) theoretical work.

During this course, I saw students developing greater ecological awareness (and for a few, even a nascent transpersonal/ecocentric subjectivity) and bringing this awareness into their daily lives. Some started hiking in the nearby wilderness, some stopped littering, some volunteered to plant trees to prevent river erosion, some began fighting against mountain range removal coal mining, and some decided to undertake a “Green Studies” minor. Socioculturally, the college offered collective structural support. My relationships with the students and their relationships with each other provided interpersonal support. And their openness to their direct experiences—being with nature and being aware of their emerging experience—was essential. I saw clearly that personal transformation and cultural transformation are deeply intertwined and reciprocally influential. Now, working in a different university, I am leading experiential ecopsychology workshops and teaching a PhD course on “Ecopsychology” that integrates theoretical study with experiential practice. Thus, the real work continues.


Aldo Leopold was touched deeply by a mother wolf as she died. My students were delighted by pileated woodpeckers living in the woods beside their dorm. Friends helped me see that ordinary cardinals are truly extraordinary. Sensitive parents and communities are initiating children into a life of intimacy with nature. And at least one ivory-billed woodpecker lives on, deep in those mysterious swamps. How glorious!

It is true that we are in the midst of a complex ecological–psychological–sociocultural–spiritual crisis. It is true that we are desperately alienated from nature. With corporate economics, techno-idolatry, and consumerism as our new religion, it is true that we are confused about who we are, what nature is, and what really matters. And it is heartbreakingly true that species are being killed off, ecosystems vanquished, relationships annihilated. Still, after almost extinguishing the ivory-bill, we are helping this majestic bird survive. The natural world is speaking to us—indeed, calling us—and we are learning to listen. So, alas, we begin wherever we are, open our body–heart–mind–soul, and respond accordingly, collaborating with all our relations, human and otherwise. The great Zen master Dogen brings us to the heart of the matter: “When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point” (Tanahashi, 1985, p. 72). Our place is here. Our time is now. May our hearts break … open … together.


Brief portions of this article were presented at the 2005 American Psychological Association Annual Convention,Washington,DC. The author thanks Drs. Jeff Beyer, Monica Walsh, Russ Walsh, Roger Brooke, David Loy, George Howard, and Daniel Holland for their insightful suggestions on an earlier draft.


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Will W. Adams holds an MA in psychology fromWestGeorgiaCollegeand a PhD in clinical psychology fromDuquesneUniversity. He previously served as a Clinical Fellow in psychology at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School. He works as an Associate Professor of psychology atDuquesneUniversityand as a psychotherapist in independent practice. Dr. Adams’s interdisciplinary interests include ecopsychology, contemplative spirituality, art and literature, and psychotherapy. This paper is dedicated to my newborn daughter, my beloved Lily Claire.

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6 Responses to The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, Ecopsychology, and the Crisis of Extinction: On Annihilating and Nurturing Other Beings, Relationships, and Ourselves

  1. cyberthrush says:

    It ought be noted, so as not to confuse anyone, that the photo heading this article is of a Pileated Woodpecker in flight, not of an Ivory-bill.

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